ARLINGTON, Texas -- Top-seeded Florida's locker room, full of heartbreak, tears and soundless seconds, felt a lot like a funeral Saturday night.
The Gators' special season -- a 30-game winning streak, historic undefeated record in conference play, a fourth straight Regional Semifinal's -- ended with a disappointing dud, a 63-53 loss to seventh-seeded Connecticut in the Final Four.
Senior center Patric Young, who tallied a season-high 19 points in the final game of his career, managed to collect some thoughts on the loss, his career and more.
ARLINGTON, Texas — Florida's 'Core Four' starts its Texas revenge tour in roughly one hour.
The top-seeded Gators and seventh-seeded Connecticut Huskies tipoff at 6:09 p.m. (EST) on TBS at Jerry World AT&T Stadium.
Florida has won all four tournament games by double-digits — the only team to do so — and enter the matchup as prohibabtive favorites (BPI 80 percent, FiveThirtyEight 70 percent, Vegas -6.5), but can Shabazz Napier complete the Kemba Walker metamophsis and engineer an upset?
ICYMI: A sampling of the Miami Herald's extensive pregame coverage:
Here's a six-pack of keys to watch during the Final Four showdown.
CONTROLLING THE PAINT
The Gators physically dominated the Huskies on Dec. 2, as UF outscored Connecticut 32-14 in the paint, had a plus-eight margin on the glass and forced both Huskies centers (Phillip Nolan, Tyler Olander) to foul out.
Patric Young was unguardable, tallying 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
Also: Florida has been a steady rebounding team (42nd defense, 41st offense) all season, while UConn struggles to control the boards with a guard-heavy lineup. Napier is UConn’s leading rebounder (5.9 rpg), as Nolan — its starting big-man — grabs just 2.9 boards per contest.
[See: UCLA note, lather, rinse, repeat]. The Gators, porous from the charity stripe most of the season (66.3 percent), have shot 73.9 percent in four NCAA Tournament games, but UConn is better… much better. Napier has shot 93 percent from the line in the Big Dance, 87 percent on the season. UConn averages 21 free throws a game.
BEHIND THE ARC
The Gators shot a woeful 6-for-25 from downtown in two games last year at the cavernous AT&T Stadium, but players swear depth perception won’t be a factor tonight. In Michigan’s Elite Eight drubbing, Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II never attempted a trey.
Kasey Hill didn’t play (ankle). Chris Walker wasn’t on campus yet (ineligible). Dorian Finney-Smith had one of his worst games of the season (4 fouls, 3 points). Florida’s depth is one of the team’s major strengths, as UF reserves have outscored their counterparts 62 percent of the time this season. In the first meeting, UConn had a plus-nine advantage (12-3). Look for that to flip tonight.
Florida had its worst assist-to-turnover ratio of the season against UConn (8:16), as Finney-Smith (6), Wilbekin (3) and Casey Prather (5) struggled to take care of the ball. The 16 turnovers were one shy of Florida’s season-high, and the Gators haven’t coughed the rock up as many as 14 times in six weeks.
Napier sliced the Gators for 26 points in the first matchup, highlighted by his buzzer-beating fadeaway. Napier has scored 25 (or more) points 10 times this season — with UConn winning eight of those games. If the Gators hold the All-American under 25 points they should roll to the finals, otherwise things could get tricky.
GAINESVILLE -- Florida is a couple days removed from the midway point of spring practice.
The Gators have six practices remaining, as camp concludes April 12 with the annual Orange & Blue Debut (1:30 p.m.).
Coach Will Muschamp has been steadily impressed with Florida's offensive progress under new coordinator Kurt Roper, but earlier this week the Gators' coach dished on some specifics, including the maturation of sophomore wideout Demarcus Robinson, Florida's tailback depth chart, the offensive line and more.
On DeMarcus Robinson...
"I think he has done some fantastic things in the passing game. He’s an explosive receiver. He’s a tough match one-on-one because of his size, his athleticism. He’s got really good ball skills down the field. I think again, sometimes maturing a little bit. We mature different times. I think we’ve seen some strides there. I’ve been pleased to this point. There’s no question from a matchup standpoint, he’s a guy that can do some things. A lot of it goes into assignments. Are you blocking the right guy? Are you running the right route? Are we sight adjusting this? You’ve got to be able to see when they bring two off the edge. Got to be able to sight adjust with the quarterback splattered. There are things like that we’ve got to continue to iron out. That’s part of the maturing process on and off the field.”
On a possible tailback-by-committee approach…
"Kelvin has run the ball well, Mack had a nice run yesterday. Very pleased with where we are with the position overall. But whoever the best players are and we'll move forward with that. I have very good confidence with the guy's we've got. And of course Matt [Jones] is sitting out and [injured early enrollee] Brandon Powell. Powell is a guy that in our offseason program he's got a different gear, quick change of direction and can do a lot of things. Disappointed he's not able to practice, but he's a guy that gives us a little juice."
On Taylor's improvement this spring…
"He's more confident in what he's doing. Much better protection than he was a year ago where he needed to take some big steps. He's got natural running instincts when running the football. This offense is a little different for these guys in how they're getting the ball. We still run the counter. We still run the power. We still run the inside run. We still run the stretch, but they're angles to the line of scrimmage are a little different, and I think they've all adjusted very well."
On how Florida's offensive line is taking to new coach Mike Summers…
"It's going well. I think again you know I've been pleased with our progress. I think D.J. [Humphries] and Chaz [Green] and Max [Garcia] have all played really good football for us. Trip's done a nice job playing at the guard position, Tyler's [Moore] handling the elbow situation--there was a time that we we didn't even know if he was going to be able to through spring, and he hasn't missed a snap. So, pleased with his progress, feels more comfortable playing inside. I think those guys have adjusted and adapted well to it."
GAINESVILLE -- A year removed from holding a glorified practice in The Swamp, the Gators will play a traditional spring game April 12.
Florida’s customary Orange & Blue Debut was scrapped last spring due to minimal depth along the offensive line, but on Monday coach Will Muschamp announced the normal format is back on.
“We'll do like the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense, and then they score for one team,” Muschamp explained. “And then the No. 2 offense vs. the No. 2 defense scores for the other team. And then incorporate some kicking game things within the game. Absolutely. Try to get as much game day as you can. Wanted to have that last year. I just didn't feel like it was fair with the offensive line situation that we had."
The Gators’ first- and-second-team units will alternate possessions, as Florida will not conduct a faux-draft for the game.
Muschamp referenced (a comical) story of a poor experience with a spring draft at LSU.
“We had Marcus Spears matched up on a guy like me playing tackle. And then Jimbo [Fisher] and Nick [Saban] have to answer the entire offseason why our passing game wasn't very good,” he said.
“Well, you know, “Will” couldn't block Marcus very good. Marcus had like 14 sacks. So the draft pick stuff is great, but I don't know that you want that matchup. I want good on good. I want to see the best players going against the best players and being able to as a staff match up guys that we know we need to find out things about.”
Muschamp said sophomore safety Keanu Neal is “close to 90 percent” after sustaining a pair of offseason hamstring injuries.
Neal, who is competing for a starting job in the secondary, is expected to return to practice Wednesday.
“He wanted to go [Monday],” Muschamp said. “We held him to just make sure this thing’s completely healed before we get you back and strain on that right now. He needs to be a part of the spring game. He needs to get in front of the crowd and play. He needs to be in practices 10, 11, 12 and 13. I didn’t want to lose him another day.”
Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Chris Thompson (undisclosed) was fully-cleared for practice after working non-contact Monday, while redshirt freshman offensive lineman Roderick Johnson remains out with a concussion.
“He still has not been cleared,” Muschamp said. “We’re hoping Wednesday, I don’t know. That’s a doctor’s call.”
THIS & THAT
Muschamp was asked about the status of incoming freshman defensive back J.C. Jackson (Immokalee) -- who reportedly injured his shoulder and might require surgery. “Not sure right now,” Muschamp said. “He had a little accident playing tackle football or something. We’re looking into that.” … Muschamp heaped praise on Florida’s overall offensive progress, but said the unit’s tempo must “pick up.” … Florida’s backup quarterback job remains in flux, as Muschamp refused to applaud true freshman Will Grier or redshirt sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg. “Both of them need to pick it up.” … Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Cameron Dillard was named UF’s backup center.
(Scottie Wilbekin, left; Patric Young, right | Courtesy pictures.zimbo.com)
GAINESVILLE -- Scottie Wilbekin's trophy case is running out of space.
Top-seeded Florida's point guard -- the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player and South Regional Most Outstanding Player -- was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press on Monday, the most prestigious of any All-American teams.
Wilbekin became Florida's first player to earn AP All-American honors since Joakim Noah and Al Horford in 2006-07.
Wilbekin averages 13.4 points and 3.7 assists as UF's floor general, but the 6-foot-2 senior has upped his performance on the biggest stage -- averaging 16.8 points in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Seniors Casey Prather and Patric Young received honorable mention acclaim, while Prather -- the team's leading scorer at 13.8 points per gam -- also landed on the 10-player Wooden All-American team.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Top-seeded Florida punched its first ticket back to the Final Four since 2007, celebrating its 62-52 win over 11th-seeded Dayton in the Elite Eight in style Saturday night at the FedEx Forum.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Archie Miller, Dayton's third-year head coach, joked his older brother, Sean -- Arizona’s head coach -- is a tad busy to solicit information on how to trump Florida.
The Wildcats and Gators played a home-and-home series in 2011-12 and 2012-13, but two brothers aren’t even speaking during the NCAA Tournament despite becoming the first siblings to lead their respective teams to the Regional Semifinals.
“He’s not helping me. He’s trying to do his thing,” said Archie, as Sean’s Wildcats advanced to the West Regional Semifinals after topping San Diego State on Thursday night in Anaheim, Calf.
“But Florida, you see them a lot on TV. You understand what they’re about. You understand their pedigree. They’re the No. 1 overall seed for a reason. They’ve won 29 games in a row. I don’t know who can help me, to be honest with you.”
Flyers assistant Tom Ostrom spent seven seasons (1998-2003) on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida and another eight seasons (2004-2011) with Gators assistant John Pelphrey at South Alabama and Arkansas, but his familiarity with Florida’s coaches won’t be crucial advantage, according to Miller.
“Tom is a terrific coach,” Miller said.
“I think Tom’s experience with Florida is a long time ago. Big thing nowadays it’s not so much what [Florida] does but their personnel.”
Donovan concurred, adding, “It’s been awhile since Tom worked for me but he did a great for me and a great job for John.”
Ostrom was put in charge of Dayton’s gameplan for the Gators, as the assistant sat courtside Thursday and scouted Florida's win over UCLA.
"It's been an up-and-down journey, but it's all been worth it. To see the point that I'm at now with my teammates. It the journey has been a struggle at times, but it's also had a lot of highs. It's been a great season. Fun. Just so much fun I want it to keep going as long as it can because this honestly been my most enjoyable year at Florida."
-- Senior poing guard Scottie Wilbekin, reflecting on his personal journey over the past 12 months.
THIS & THAT
The Gators tied a season-high with 22 assists against UCLA, including 10 dimes by freshman point guard Kasey Hill. According to ESPN Stats Inc., Hill became just the fourth freshman ever to record 10 (or more) assists in a Sweet 16 game, joining elite company in Magic Johnson (1978), Jason Kidd (1993) and Keith Gatlin (1984). ... Dayton goes 12-deep with line change substitutions, but Florida's reserves -- led by Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith -- have outscored their counterparts 62 percent of the time this season, including 11 of the last 14 games. ... Amanda Butler’s 11th-seeded Lady Gators upset sixth-seeded Dayton (83-69) in the first round of this year’s women’s NCAA Tournament. It marks the first time in school history Florida’s men’s and women’s teams have played the same school in the tournament in the same season.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Top-seeded Gators center Patric Young dished on 11th-seeded Dayton's depth, Florida coach Billy Donovan's motivational analogies, Chris Walker's fear of flying, embracing his role as team big brother and the David versus Goliath matchup.
The Gators and Flyers tip-off at 6:09 p.m. (TBS) at the FedEx Forum with a Final Four berth at stake.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The top-seeded Gators (34-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) tip-off tonight (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the Sweet 16, and while everyone -- yours truly included -- has focused on contrasting styles, tempo and dueling point guards, here’s three under-the-radar keys to watch tonight.
1. Coaching disparity
Another popular pregame narrative has been the parallels between Florida coach Billy Donovan and UCLA coach Steve Alford. They both were savvy point guards who led their respective teams to the 1987 Final Four. They both have sons who play for them. They both went to the Sweet 16 (as coaches) for the first time in 1999.
To me though, the similarities end there.
While Alford was the better player, Donovan has proven to be the superior coach -- by multiple Pauley Pavillions.
Donovan has 33 NCAA Tournament victories -- 26 more wins than Alford (7).
Alford, who advanced past the opening weekend for the first time in 14 years, is a charismatic coach known mostly for doing more with less and less with more.
College hoops is full over over-zealous coaching but if matters Thursday night, the nation’s best team clearly has the better sideline pedigree.
2. Free Throw Shooting
It’s simple really: During the 2013-14 season, Florida (usually) stunk at the charity stripe, while UCLA (traditionally) succeeded.
The Gators made 20-of-27 free throws in the second- and-third round of the NCAA Tournament, but they still rank No. 280 nationally in overall percentage (66.3).
UCLA ranks No. 21 (74.9 percent) in the country at the charity stripe, as four of five starters shoot at least 77 percent.
Jordan Adams, UCLA’s prolific scoring swingman, shoots nearly 84 percent at the line and has made (156) and attempted (186) more free throws than any player on Florida’s roster.
If the game is close late, the Bruins definitely hold the edge at the line.
3. Who slows down Patric Young?
Yes, UCLA poses challenging matchups playing upside down -- its guards post up and its bigs shoot -- but what about the showdown on the other end of the floor?
The Wear twins are both 6-10, but power -- especially dogged, desperate strength -- can trump length. Patric Young, averaging 8.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in the tournament, is determined for another crack at the Elite Eight and a final chance to make the Final Four.
Can the Wear twins (along with Tony Parker) match his interior-presence, effort and intensity?
***** BONUS Q *****
Both teams rely on freshmen guards off the bench (UCLA: Zach LaVine, Bryce Alford; UF: Kasey Hill) -- who shines or shudders on the big stage?
(Matt McCall, left, Billy Donovan, right | Courtesy kansan.com)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- UCLA poses plenty of matchup challenges for the nation's top team, so who better to breakdown the intriguing showdown then Florida scouting wiz/assistant coach Matt McCall.
The top-seeded Gators (34-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) tip-off tonight (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the Sweet 16 at the FedEx Forum.
Florida’s unrelenting full-court pressure forces plenty of turnovers, but what’s the key in limiting scoring opportunities (ex: Pittsburgh tallied just 22 first-half points last weekend) when teams do break the press?
“The biggest thing is positioning, being in the right spots. Our defense is built to handle anything that’s coming at us. When our guys are in the right spots and understand their roles no matter what action or play it all comes down to positioning. We played with a tremendous amount of passion [against the Panthers]. We understood those guys could cause us all sorts of problems, and it’s going to be no different against UCLA. This is a little bit unique from what we’ve faced all year from the standpoint of our guards are going to have to guard a lot on the inside and our frontcourt players are going to have to guard a lot on the outside which is different. We’ve had some time to prepare, but it’s a little unique.”
Is UCLA -- with its offensive firepower -- the first team this season Florida has faced that can consistently score off breaking the press?
“Very rarely do those guys get late into the clock. I can’t say they’re taking bad shots. Jordan Adams has got terrific basketball IQ and he really knows how to use screens. He’s as good as any player we’ve played against this year at finding spots to score and using screens. And then when you got a guy [Kyle Anderson] that’s 6-9 out there controlling everything and finding him, that really helps too. They’re unselfsish. It’s impressive. They really don’t take bad shots. … Jordan Adams, if you take the first option away. He understands how to get to the next one and the next one. Then add Norman Powell who’s flying up the floor and gets a lot of his baskets in transition. It all causes issues.”
While Anderson generates a lot of headlines with his freakish-versatility, Adams is a potent scoring threat. Is there any SEC-comp for him?
“It’s hard because he posts more than any guard we’ve played against. I’d put him up there -- if not better -- than [Missouri guard] Jabari Brown and [Tennesse guard] Jordan McCrae. Those guys don’t post as much as this guy. They’re terrific but Adams’ basketball IQ takes him to a different level. He’s an explosive player.”
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As a standout at North Side High in Jackson, Tenn., Florida’s senior slasher Casey Prather grew up just 90 miles from FedEx Forum.
The Gators’ leading scorer (14.1 ppg) played high school and AAU games at the arena and is thrilled to return to his backyard.
“It’s great just having my family be able to support me,” Prather said, on this homecoming. “I know they wanted to come to a lot more games but I’ve been kind of far away, so me playing close to home is just great for them. “It’s a great environment. I’m excited. It should be a lot of fun.”
The 2013-14 season has been special for Prather, as his well-documented struggles with injuries and identity issues nearly derailed his Florida career.
But after some soul-searching last offseason, the 6-foot-6 swingman has matured into Florida’s most potent threat around the rim.
Prather led the SEC in field goal percentage (60.7) and was an all-conference first teamer, as his patience and perseverance paid off.
“I had to stay locked it to who I am as a player,” he explained. “Just playing to my strengths. … The [coaching staff] helped me see the big picture. I took a step back and realized what I can bring to the team and things I could do effectively to help us win.”
Florida nearly poached UCLA’s do-everything-all-star two years ago, as Anderson almost committed to the Gators during the 2012 recruiting cycle.
The Jersey City St. Anthony’s standout -- the same hoops academy former Gators guard Mike Rosario attended -- ultimately chose the Bruins due to former UCLA coach Ben Howland’s propensity for developing combo-guards.
However, Rivals’ third-overall player said it was a close decision.
“I wouldn’t have had a problem going to both schools,” the former McDonald’s All-American said.
“I just happened to like UCLA more. The player development that I saw when being recruited by Donovan played a big role in how much I liked Florida at the time. But I decided to come to UCLA, and I’m happy with my decision.”
VALUE THE BALL
While the Bruins are considered solely an offensive juggernaut, they rank No. 4 in the country in steals, averaging 9.3 swipes per game thanks to their impressive length, size and quick hands.
Florida is well aware of UCLA’s prowess of jumping passing lanes and converting turnovers into fast points, with senior center Patric Young calling the Bruins “the fastest shooting team [from defense to offense] in the country.”
Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II added, “taking care of the ball is key because they score a lot of their points in transition.”
“There’s no easy exit out of the NCAA Tournament.”
-- Billy Donovan
THIS & THAT
Florida made 20-of-27 free throws in the second- and-third round of the NCAA Tournament, but the Gators still rank No. 280 nationally (66.3 percent) in overall percentage and the charity stripe may loom large down the stretch. UCLA is very good free throw shooting team, finishing the season No. 21 (74.9 percent) nationally. … UCLA is 14-7 against RPI top-100 teams. … Donovan is 6-1 in the Sweet 16, winning six-straight since 1999.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Live from Blues City, where the top-seeded Gators will meet with the media later this afternoon before they tangle with fourth-seeded UCLA tomorrow night in the Fed-Ex Forum (approx. 9:45 p.m., CBS).
But first: SPRING FOOTBALL!!!
Coverage has been minimal due to hoops, but coach Will Muschamp met with the media Tuesday and discussed a number of topics.
Here are the pertinent details.
DRISKEL SEPARATING FROM THE PACK
Following a dismal 4-8 season, Muschamp pronounced every position -- including quarterback -- was open this spring, but the forgone conclusion was that redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel would regain his starting job upon returning from his broken leg.
For all intents and purposes, he has -- just unofficially.
On Tuesday, Muschamp said Driskel, "comfortable and confident" in Kurt Roper’s up-tempo scheme, has “distanced himself from the other quarterbacks” during spring practice.
Driskel’s mechanics have been a tad rusty early in camp, but the quarterback’s experience and duel-threat skill-set has worked seamlessly in the premature stages of installing Roper’s spread offense.
“I’ve been very pleased with his maturity and handling it,” Muschamp said.
“He’s running well, he’s moving it around well. The ankle is not bothering him as far as those things are concerned. I think continuing just to work on the fundamentals because he really didn’t throw much to my knowledge until we started practice, so he was just cleared right before spring was concerned as far as all of the movement stuff is concerned.”
While Driskel has the leg-up in the pseudo quarterback race, Muschamp said sophomore Skyler Morhinweg, who started the final three games in 2013, and star-recruit Will Grier are competing well.
“But those guys have done some nice things at times,” Muschamp said. “Jeff’s been through change before, so I think the more times you go through that stuff you kind of can handle it and move forward, the maturity takes over. Everything is brand new to Will.”
RECIEVER … DEPTH???
Florida’s wide receiver corps has been a position of grand ineptitude in recent years, a much-maligned unit on a historically bumbling offense.
But according to Muschamp, the situation is primed to change this season.
Florida's current assemblage of wideouts is the most talented group he’s had at Florida, he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s any question.”
Muschamp noted six contributors -- senior Quinton Dunbar, juniors Latroy Pittman and Valdez Showers and sophomores Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson and Chris Thompson -- standing out in practice and capable of producing come fall.
“All of those guys have shown some flashes and done some nice things through four days, and had good off-seasons as well,” he said.
Muschamp also highlighted the play of preferred walk-on receiver Case Harrison, a local product from Gainesville High School.
Senior linebacker Neiron Ball, a projected starter at outside linebacker, will likely miss the remainder of spring practice with a sprained MCL.
According to Muschamp, Ball is “fine” and “probably could [participate] in the latter part [of camp] but we feel like some other guys need reps.”
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman linebacker Jordan Sherit (hyper-extended right elbow), sophomore safety Keanu Neal (hamstring) and freshman offensive lineman Roderick Johnson (concussion) all missed practice Monday with minor injuries.
Sherit will work non-contact until next week, while Johnson -- who is competing for a starting job at guard -- is expected to return to practice Friday.
THIS & THAT
Sensational sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is taking on an increased leadership roll in the locker room, Muschamp said. … Freshmen defensive backs Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor, early enrollees, are competing for a starting job opposite of Hargreaves. … Former Gators quarterback Shane Matthews attended practice Monday and Muschamp said the 13-year NFL veteran was impressed with Roper as a position coach/teacher. … Muschamp noted the play of end Bryan Cox Jr. and tackle Jay-nard Bostwick as two defensive linemen standing out in camp.
GAINESVILLE -- Billy Donovan isn’t going anywhere.
Florida’s veteran coach signed a three-year contract extension through 2018-19, bumping his annual salary to $3.68 million over the next five years.
Florida will pay Donovan close to $4 million this season after he received a $250,000 longevity bonus earlier in March, according to contract details released Tuesday.
During is 18 seasons in Gainesville, Florida’s coached has revolutionized Gators basketball, leading UF to two national championships, three Final Fours and 14 NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Gators -- who punched their fourth-consecutive Sweet 16 ticket last Saturday and will face fourth-seeded UCLA in Memphis, Tenn. on Thursday (9:45 p.m., CBS) -- own the nation’s longest active winning streak at 28 straight.
Under terms of his new deal, Donovan no longer has a non-compete clause in his contract but he still must receive “express written consent” from athletic director Jeremy Foley before speaking with either an NBA franchise or another collegiate institution.
Donovan’s base salary will remain at $220,000 but his activities agreement increased by roughly $100,000.
Donovan’s (highly-incentivized) postseason benefits did not change with the new contract.
As with the old deal, Donovan earns $37,000 for making the NCAA Tournament with triggered increases for reaching the Sweet 16 and Final Four. Donovan would earn a $150,000 bonus for winning the NCAA Championship.
Donovan has already racked up bonus cash this postseason, earning $250,000 for reaching the Sweet 16, winning the SEC, winning AP coach of the year and finishing in the Associate Press Top 10.
While the timing seems a bit reactive to last week's news of Donovan's "NBA intrigue," via multiple reports, Donovan agreed the contract during the summer but it wasn’t finalized until last month.
Last week, a trip to Orlando spurred memories of when Donovan spurned the Magic in 2007. Florida's coach agreed on a contract, only to change his mind and later walk away.
While Donovan wouldn’t commit to staying with the Gators forever, he was adamant there's no place he rather be right now.
“When you say a lifer, that means to me I'm never, every going to go anywhere and be there,” Donovan said.
“Who knows? They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on. But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements. I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”
GAINESVILLE -- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is “good to go” after knocking knees with a Pittsburgh player late in Florida’s 61-45 win over the Panthers on Saturday in Orlando.
“My knee feels fine,” said Wilbekin, who fueled the top-seeded Gators to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16 with a game-high 21 points.
The Southeastern Conference Player of the Year was forced to miss the final minute of action with the injury, but called it simply “a bruise.”
Coach Billy Donovan expects Wilbekin to practice normally, adding, “There's no issues right now, at least that I've been aware of or made aware of as it relates to him going forward.”
The Gators (33-2) will tangle with the fourth-seeded UCLA Bruins on Thursday (9:45 p.m., CBS) in the South Regional Semifinals in Memphis, Tenn.
SEC! SEC! SEC!
Much was made over the SEC’s weakness as a major hoops conference this season, but with three Sweet 16 teams -- top-seeded Florida, ninth-seeded Kentucky and 11th-seeded Tennessee -- the league is slowly altering public perception.
While UK and UT are suddenly playing to peak potential, Donovan believes the conference’s reputation -- past and present -- has been overblown all along.
“I think our league can play with any league in the country,” UF’s coach said.
“But I would say this, and I've said this before: Just because a certain league teams get knocked out early doesn't mean the league is overrated, and because a league really, really advances in the tournament doesn't mean the league is great. I just get upset when all of a sudden everybody just throws out and makes assumptions or draws conclusions of a league being good or bad based on what's happened in the non‑conference. That to me is, I think, somewhat unfair.”
The SEC -- aside from Florida and Kentucky -- was pitiful during non-conference play in November and December, de-valuing its reputation across the country with poor scheduling and inexplicable losses.
But the league is undefeated in the NCAA Tournament (7-0) -- the best record for a conference entering the Regional Semifinals since the Big East in 2003 (8-0).
“It’s pretty cool to see three SEC teams in the Sweet 16,” Wilbekin said. “All I heard all year was that the SEC was down and it was weak.”
Donovan acknowledged matchups are key in single-elimination tournaments but that leagues shouldn’t be measured solely on postseason successes or failures.
“I think if everybody in the SEC was out of the tournament, they'd say, ‘See, I told you the league is no good,’” Donovan explained.
“Now we've got some teams advancing: ‘Wow, the league must be really, really underrated.’ Sometimes it has to do with matchups, sometimes it has to do with who you're playing against; sometimes it has to do with how well you're playing. There's a lot of variables that go into winning in postseason.”
THOUGHTS ON PEARL
While some league coaches have shied away from commenting on Bruce Pearl’s return to the SEC, Donovan called Auburn’s hiring “good for the league.”
The Tigers poached Pearl from ESPN last week, several months before the former Tennessee coach’s three-year NCAA show cause expires.
“I had a chance to talk to Bruce,” Donovan said. “He had called me and we had talked a little bit. I'm happy for him. I think just being in the league with him for that long and kept in touch with him the three years he was out, and I think for him it was ‑‑ he went through a lot of difficulty personally internally. I think it was really hard on him.”
The Volunteers fired Pearl in March 2011 after he lied to NCAA investigators and the program was hit with minor sanctions.
“He's an outstanding coach,” Donovan said. I think Bruce coming in will do a great job. He'll certainly bring energy and enthusiasm to the league, to Auburn, and I'm happy for him if that's what he wants to do.”
GAINESVILLE -- For the fourth time since 2006, Florida and UCLA will battle in the NCAA Tournament.
The top-seeded Gators (33-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) will square off Thursday (9;45 p.m., CBS) in the South Regional Semifinals in Memphis, Tenn. (FedEx Forum) with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight.
UCLA -- Pac-12 Tournament champions -- demolished 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin 77-60 on Sunday night, advancing to its first regional semifinals since 2008.
But Florida has been nothing but heartbreak for college basketball's most historic program.
The Gators, winners of a nation's-best 28 straight, trumped the Bruins in all three tournament match-ups -- highlighted by Florida's back-to-back wins in the 2006 NCAA Championship game (73-57) and 2007 Final Four (77-66).
Florida also topped UCLA 73-65 in the Round of 32 in 2011.
The Bruins are led by first-year coach Steve Alford, who bolted New Mexico to replace the fired Ben Howland during the offseason.
UCLA is an electric offensive team (81.7 points per game, No. 12 AdjO according to KenPom.com) powered by sensational sophomores Jordan Adams (17.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.7 spg) and Kyle Anderson (14.7 ppg, 6.6 apg), but the Bruins must hope the fourth time's a charm to finally top No. 1 Florida and its ferocious defense.
More tomorrow, but first the clip teased in the headline.
(Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young | Courtesy AP Photo/John Raoux)
ORLANDO -- The top-seeded Gators waved farewell to the Sunshine State in style Saturday afternoon, smothering 9th-seeded Pittsburgh into submission for a 61-45 victory in front of a sellout, pro-Gators crowd inside the Amway Center.
“How sweet it is,” assistant coach Matt McCall shouted in the locker room.
Florida won its 28th straight game, punching its fourth consecutive ticket to the Sweet 16.
The Gators will face the winner of Sunday’s game between 4th-seed UCLA and 12th-seed Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.
Here's some notable quotes from the locker room.
"We weren't going to let them to play harder than us.”
-- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who paced Florida with a game-high 21 points.
“At this point I’m happy to get out this gym. That’s the name of the game though. Some shots are going to go in. Some aren’t. I took good shots tonight. I can’t control whether the ball goes in or not because if I could every shot would go in.”
-- Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II, on shooting just 4-for-15 in two games at Amway Arena
“When you have a guy like that you just give him the ball and move out of his way. ... He was hot. He gave us an offensive boost. We needed it.”
-- Frazier, on Wilbekin's big night.
"I thought our defense in particular, both halves it was good, but I thought in the second half it really, really was good, and these guys did a really terrific job from start to finish."
-- Gators coach Billy Dononvan, on UF's splendid defensive effort.
"The three they hit was one of those things that could've easily been prevented if he would've executed what coach (Jamie Dixon) wanted. Coach wanted us to foul him before he could get close to taking a shot."
-- Panthers forward Michael Young, on Wilbekin's running, halftime buzzer-beater.
"Florida is the most physical team we've play all year. They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls. We have to give them credit."
-- Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon, on UF's hustle.
"If we would’ve brought [UF's relentless hustle] to the first game would’ve been drastically different. Our mindset, effort, focus on the defensive end was just unprecedented. That’s how we want to be every single night."
-- Florida center Patric Young, on UF's relentless hustle
ORLANDO -- Michael Frazier II provides instant offense for the top-seeded Gators and opponents have taken note – aggravatingly so for Florida’s prolific outside shooter.
UF’s sophomore sniper, averaging 12.6 points and three treys a game, was mostly a frustrated decoy Thursday afternoon, as Albany clamped down on the nation’s ninth-best three-point shooter (45 percent).
The Great Danes held Frazier to just 1-of-5 from the field, blanketing the sophomore with multiple defenders by utilizing a triangle-and-two defense to freeze out Florida’s lone consistent long distance threat.
Three years ago, former Butler coach Brad Stevens employed a similar strategy when his Bulldogs shocked the Gators in overtime in the Elite Eight, but Florida actually took advantage of the space in the paint on Thursday.
“I think the greatest sign of respect for me as a coach is when somebody says to a player, we're going to take that player out of the game,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
“It was a game where because of the way they guarded Frazier, because of the way they guarded [Scottie] Wilbekin, there were a lot of other things open, especially inside and around the basket that I thought we took advantage of.”
Although Frazier was visibly upset after the lackluster victory, Donovan cooled the sophomore’s temperature with an anecdote that resonated with the entire team.
“Coach [Donovan] talked to the team after the game and told a story about when he was a player a Providence and they were playing Georgetown,” UF assistant Matt McCall explained.
“Going into the year, Coach was leading the NCAA Tournament in scoring, getting like 30 [points] a game, and Georgetown said, 'Hey we're going to take Billy Donovan out of the game.' They did and he only took two shots but [Providence] won by 18. So you take it as a sign of a team having respect for you. And if they're going to take that much focus on you and take you out of the game, other things for other guys are going to open up.”
Florida was forced to turn to other options, and Kasey Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith and others carried the load but Frazier may have a chance to get back on track against Pitt.
While the Panthers play a stingy, tenacious half-court defense, they’re not particularly adept at guarding the three-point line (No. 100 nationally in three-point defense) -- something coach Jamie Dixon is openly concerned about.
"If [Frazier] makes of couple of shots he can break a game open," Dixon said.
"He's their best shooter, best perimeter threat and shoots a high percentage from 3.”
Frazier drilled three early treys against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game, pacing the Gators early. But while the sophomore wants “his,” he’s more concerned with winning.
“[Albany] was determined to not to let [me] beat them, so it opened up things for other guys,” he said. “[Pittsburgh’s] defense is different, so we'll have some open looks in other areas.”
Pitt smoked Colorado on Thursday, drubbing the Buffalos by 29-points in its most dominant (and complete) performance this season. Meanwhile, the Gators struggled for 35 minutes against overmatched Albany.
Will the two teams deviate towards their norm tomorrow?
The Panthers have competed well against ranked teams (three losses by a combined 10 points), but they simply haven’t beaten many (1-4 record).
Despite a 2-15 all-time record against the No. 1 team in the country, they remain confident they can pull off the upset.
“We're playing good basketball right now,” said forward Lamar Patterson, Pitt’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game.
“We'll know if we're playing our best basketball on Saturday. … Right now is the perfect time to be making strides toward the best you can possibly be, and I feel like that's what we're doing as a team.”
“In the South, okay, football is the passion. It's never changing. It's just the way it is. Okay, and I've done nothing since I've been at Florida but try to embrace that because I really believe in the fall there's not a greater place to be than on our campus when there's a football game going on. That being said, I do think that there is an incredible affinity in the state and nationally for the University of Florida, and I always look at, right now, one, the support administratively, the support by fans, what our building is like, what the commitment has been, and I think our commitment and our support has been as good as anywhere in the country, and I think there's a lot of people that are involved with that.”
-- Donovan, on Florida as a football school vs. a basketball school
THIS & THAT
Pitt holds a plus-6.3 rebounding margin, tops in the ACC. … The Panthers, who rarely faced an aggressive press in the ACC, also led the conference in assists per game (15.6) and Donovan called them, “An outstanding passing team.” … After shooting just 50 percent from the charity stripe in the SEC Tournament, Florida was 14-for-18 (77.8 percent) against Albany. … Donovan said freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who scored 10 points in his first-career NCAA Tournament game, is “fine” and has no lingering issues with his toe injury. … Florida’s four seniors are just one win away from setting the school-record for most wins by a single class. … Pitt topped Albany 58-46 earlier this season, allowing just 18 points in the first half. However, the Panthers’ 12-point margin was the same as Florida’s final margin against the Great Danes.
ORLANDO -- Billy Donovan is happy in Gainesville, very happy in fact, but No. 1 Florida's coach acknowledged the next logical step on the coaching ladder still "intrigues" him.
“To me the NBA part of it for me is ‑‑ it's all basketball,” Donovan explained.
“I got into coaching because of the basketball piece of it, and there is an intrigue as it relates to that. One of the things that I think I've learned, when you try to project where your future is, where you're going to be, and you don't know because I don't have a crystal ball, all I can say is I am happy here at Florida. I love being here.”
A trip to Orlando has spurred memories of when Donovan spurned the Magic in 2007. Florida's coach agreed on a contract, only to change his mind and later walk away.
Donovan has remained at UF ever since -- 18 seasons since first accepting the job in 1996.
“It was just something internally I felt like this was where I needed to be,” said Donovan, remarking on his change of heart in 2007.
“Who knows where I'd be right now. I don't know. Maybe TV, maybe sitting on a beach somewhere? I don't know. I'm excited that I'm still at Florida and still having a chance to coach, and I'm happy that making that decision there's been a lot of things that I've had a chance to experience.”
Although Donovan wouldn’t commit to staying with the Gators forever, he was adamant he’s quite content -- for now.
“When you say a lifer, that means to me I'm never, every going to go anywhere and be there,” Donovan said.
“Who knows? They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on. But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements. I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”
ORLANDO -- It was supposed to be easy, but it wasn’t.
Top-seeded Florida dispatched a scrappy 16-seeded Albany 67-55 Thursday afternoon in the Amway Center, avoiding a monumental upset as its road to the Final Four started out much rockier than anticipated.
The Southeastern Conference Champions -- winners of a school-record 27 straight games and top-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament -- survived a scare from the American East Champions, but you wouldn’t have known it postgame.
Florida’s locker room felt like a funeral, and a despondent group acknowledged they must play better.
"I think we should look at this game as a blessing,” senior center Patric Young said.
“We can't have this same type of energy going into the next game, this same type of mindset or focus, whatever it was. We have to flush that and just remember that we have to be somebody we have been the whole year going into the next game. Hopefully learning from this game will help us do that next game.”
Florida was “out of sync” all afternoon, as senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said the team lacked energy, focus and connectivity from the start.
Coach Billy Donovan told the team afterwards they “were lucky to get one more.”
“He said if we play like we did tonight then that will be the last one we get,” Wilbekin explained.
“We just got to flush this game and get ready for Pittsburgh.”
Sophomore sniper Michael Frazier, Florida's third-leading scorer, hit a trey for the 18th straight game, but the prolific shooter struggled to generate many looks from behind the arc (1-for-4).
The Gators, bottled up by the Great Danes’ stingy (ever-changing) zone defenses, hit just 3-of-13 three-pointers -- their fewest treys since Feb. 15 at Kentucky.
“We played a lot of junk defenses,” Albany coach Will Brown said. “The triangle-and-two, diamand-and-one, matchup zone, we just wanted to know where [Frazier] was at all times.
“We had all sorts of names for him: Ray Allen, Jesus Shuttlesworth. He has the smoothest stroke since Ray Allen. We were determined not to let him get a free look.”
ERVING WALKER 2.0?
The Great Danes had their own Mighty Mouse and he nearly sparked the upset.
DJ Evans -- Albany’s 5-foot-9 point guard -- scored a game-high 21 points (6-for-12, 2-of-5 from behind the arc) while taking a beating in the process.
Evans, who had ice wrapped on his elbow postgame, took a knee the head at one point and later crashed to the floor following a nifty shot-fake.
It was a valiant effort by a tough little guy.
“I have a lot of bumps and bruises,” Evans said. “It was a dog-fight. I just didn’t want to let my teammates down.”
“You see the size of Patric Young? If he couldn’t make it in the NBA he’s going to have a shot in the NFL. If he doesn’t go to the NFL, he’ll be in the WWE. If he doesn’t go there, maybe UCF. I mean, that guy is enormous.”
-- Brown, on Florida’s size and athleticism
THIS & THAT
Young added 10 points and 10 rebounds, finishing with his first double-double in 45 games and 11th of his career. … The Gators had five scorers in double figures: Casey Prather (16), Young (10), Wilbekin (10), Kasey Hill (10) and Dorian Finney-Smith (16). Prather also added three blocks (tying a career-high) and two steals. … Donovan was named one of five finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award, given to the nation’s top head coach.
For more, a notebook, checkout all the latest action from the NCAA Tournament: Today's gamer on Florida's too-close-for-comfort victory, a sidebar on two reserves playing key roles and a column outling UF's chase for greatness.
ORLANDO -- Freshman point guard Kasey Hill will be a game-time decision for Florida’s tournament opener against 16-seed Albany (4:10 p.m., TBS), the school announced Wednesday.
Hill, who is averaging 5.9 points and 3.1 assists as Scottie Wilbekin’s backup, is battling turf toe and will be re-evaluated Thursday morning during Florida’s team shoot-around.
The Umatilla native participated in Wednesday’s open practice and displayed no visible limp during the workout, but the McDonald’s All-American did miss seven games this season with various injuries (ankle, groin).
Orlando is a homecoming of sorts for several Gators, including fan-favorite walk-on Jake “The Snake” Kurtz.
Kurtz, who starred at Hagerty under Josh Kone, said the return to Orlando is “really cool.”
“I grew up a Magic fan, 15-minutes away from here. This is a thrill,” he said.
Kurtz’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament wasn’t so pleasant though.
In 2011, when the Gators faced Virginia (and later Norfolk State) in Omaha, Nebraska, Kurtz didn’t have a seat on the bench.
Tomorrow he may have a chance to play.
“The seats get cut down in the NCAA Tournament,” Kurtz explained, acknowledging the situation was “a bummer.” “I wasn’t able to sit [with the team]. That was the first experience I had with the tournament. … I’d love to play. Everyone wants to play, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing if we win, and I don’t. I’m ok as long as we keep moving on.”
MASTER AND HIS PUPIL(S)
While fans across the country are upset with Louisville's seeding, coach Rick Pitino is frustrated with his team's opponent.
Pitnio criticized the NCAA selection committee for pitting his Cardinals against Manhattan, coached by protégée and longtime friend Steve Masiello.
But while Louisville's Hall of Fame coach is upset about facing off against Masiello, Pitino effusively sang the praises of another former star pupil also in Orlando: Florida coach Billy Donovan.
“Billy the Kid to me is one of the most special people in my life. I’ve said this, [former Cardinals point guard] Peyton Siva and Donovan were two of the most special people I’ve ever coached. I could never find a character flaw in them,” Pitino said.
Then the eulogizing continued.
“There’s no finer person I’ve met in my life,” he said. “He’s just the most special human being I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime. He never changed. Success hasn’t changed him. Adversity hasn’t changed him.”
Donovan, who’s built his own expansive coaching tree including Shaka Smart (VCU), Anthony Grant (Alabama), Donnie Jones (UCF) and Larry Shyatt (Wyoming), boasted on Pitino’s ability to develop assistants into quality head coaches.
“When I was 24 years old, I was forced to scout. I was forced to coach. I was forced to teach. I was forced to break down film,” Donovan explained. “I was forced to make decisions. There was not any area of coaching when I was with Coach Pitino that I was not exposed to, and it was challenging, it was demanding, and it made me better. I really felt even though I was 28-years-old and took over at Marshall, I didn't feel like I was unprepared, or geez, this is overwhelming. Not at all, and I think that had everything to do with Coach Pitino in terms of preparing us, and I hope in some way what he did for me I can do the same thing for my guys that are assistant coaches and move on to head coaching positions, is to get them prepared as much as I can.”
"It seems like a long time ago. I've got great respect for the Magic and for this organization, for the people running it. I'm excited to be at Florida. When I went back, I knew we were going to have to rebuild. We lost a lot of personnel, and it's been challenging, it's been rewarding. There's been peaks and valleys. There's been ups and downs. But I'm proud of what our team has done to get to this point. We're happy that we can certainly stay here in the state of Florida and the city of Orlando to play in the tournament. But for me, I think that's over and done with, and I've kind of moved on from it."
--- Donovan, on returning to Orlando for the first time since renegging on Magic job in 2007.
GAINESVILLE -- The top-ranked Gators -- media darlings to win to 2014 NCAA Tournament -- have aced nearly every test this season, but Billy Donovan's senior-laden squad does have a scarlet-shortcoming that could torpedo its title hopes.
No. 1 Florida (32-2), which opens the second-round Thursday in Orlando (4:10 p.m., TBS) against play-in winner Albany, ranks as the nation's No. 289 team in free throw shooting at 66. 1 percent -- ninth-worst in the tournament’s field of 68.
While the cure-all for Florida's habitual slow starts has seemingly amounted to a halftime-dousing of Michael Jordan's "Secret Stuff," Donovan has found no remedy for UF's woes at the charity stripe.
"We’ve got to do a better job there," Donovan acknowledged.
"We were doing really, really well for a while there. One of the things that happened is we did work on it some, but we’ve got to spend more time on that. That has to be an emphasis and focal point for us. We’ve shown the ability and the potential to shoot the ball well. There’s been numerous games where we come down the stretch of games and gone 10-for-11, we’ve made 16 out of 18. There’s been some good stretches."
But others have been wretched.
The Gators shot a woeful 50 percent (27 of 54) over three games in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, nearly coughing up a championship with a 7-for-17 performance against Kentucky in the finals.
"We just going to have to put in more work," said forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who missed the front-end of a one-and-one with 20 seconds remaining against the Wildcats as Florida clung to its one-point lead.
"I didn't even notice we missed that many free throws, but now that I know the stats we got to do a lot better than that."
Florida -- which proved capable at the charity stripe during a stretch in mid-February, shooting 79-percent in four games decided by single-digits -- must buck history if it’s going to capture its third national championship since 2006.
The last NCAA team to shoot under 70 percent and win a national championship was Florida in 2006-07, joining 2004 Connecticut as just the second school over the past decade (2004-2013) to do so.
"It's an area we’ve got to get better," Donovan said. "Certainly that three-game stretch from us was not a great stretch at all."
The Gators have just two players -- senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (72.6 percent) and sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II (83.6 percent) -- who shoot north of 67 percent but Wilbekin was just 1-for-6 at the line during the SEC Tournament.
“Obviously we want to make those free throws, but we did a good job focusing on the next play,” he said.
Florida may run out of “next plays” in the NCAA Tournament though.
GAINESVILLE -- Florida football kicks-off spring camp this afternoon, opening the first of nine practices at 3:35 p.m. inside the Sanders Fields.
The Gators -- who will practice 15 times between today and April 12th’s Orange & Blue Debut -- hope to slowly start to wash away the stains from their abominable 2013 campaign and the worst season (4-8) in Gainesville in 35 years.
Naturally, it’s a big spring for embattled coach Will Muschamp -- who’s stink has been Febreze’d a bit thanks to the success of Florida’s top-ranked hoops team.
But can Muschamp maintain his (newfound) fresh fragrance? We’ll see.
The Gators (seriously) boast one of the nation’s most talented teams but question marks remain abound. From sorting out jumbled positions to answering key concerns for an irritated fan base, it’s an important month for Florida football.
*************** SIX STORYLINES TO FOLLOW ***************
1. Can new coordinator Kurt Roper’s rebuild UF’s offense? [BONUS Q’S] How fast will Florida’s players grasp the new system, and what will Roper’s tempo-attack look like with (under-developed) four- and-five-star players?
The Gators ranked No. 113 nationally in total offense last year, replacing two offensive coaches 24-hours into the offseason. Roper’s success (or lack their of) will likely determine Muschamp’s future at Florida -- so no pressure on Duke’s former quarterbacks guru. While spring practice won’t ultimately determine Florida’s 2014 fate, quality work would certainly be advantageous.
2. Will Jeff Driskel sink or swim?
Florida pushed back spring practice specifically so its redshirt junior quarterback would be fully recovered from his broken leg. The Gators’ enigmatic signal caller is working under his third offensive coordinator -- and third different system -- in four years, but Roper’s no-huddle spread is specifically tailored to Driskel skill-set. With a pair of talented freshmen waiting in the wings, it’s put up or shut-up time for JD.
3. Who -- if anyone -- will emerge along the offensive line and at wide receiver and tight end?
Driskel needs help, lots of help. Florida’s offensive line was a disaster last year, as the Gators shuffled the deck more than a Jumbotron hat game. Injuries were a major factor, but a lack of development (see: Humphries, D.J.) and positional fit (see: Moore, Tyler) were key issues as well. At wideout, (the forever uninspiring) Quinton Dunbar returns as the team’s leading receiver, but the rest of the group is largely unknown, high on potential yet low on progress. Meanwhile, Florida has a dearth of talent at tight end, problematic considering the way Roper likes to utilize the position in the passing game.
4. What will the Gators’ secondary look like?
Florida must replace four (sometimes) valuable contributors from its vaunted defensive backfield. Although Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson underwhelmed last season, the duo still made plays, as did the much-steadier performing Jaylen Watkins. Adding Cody Rigss’ transfer to Notre Dame, UF has a pair of openings at safety for the second straight spring. Marcus Maye, Keanu Neal and Jabari Gorman will compete for playing time, while Marcell Harris could be in the mix as well. Meanwhile, five-star early enrollee Jaylen Tabor is expected to fight for a starting job at cornerback opposite Florida’s top overall returning player: Vernon Hargreaves III.
5. Who will star (and will they have any staying-power?)
It’s a yearly tradition at Florida: spring stars = fall frauds. Over the past several seasons, Demarcus Robinson, Jabari Gorman (two years ago), Quinton Dunbar, Latroy Pittman, Gideon Ajagbe (on defense) and many, many others have shined in spring camp only to disappear (for a multitude of reasons) when the games actually count. Obviously this question cannot be answered in a month, but if guys like Adam Lane, Alvin Bailey or Jay-nard Bostwick go off in March, it’s best to temper all future expectations.
6. How hungry are these Gators?
The entire program was embarrassed about its first losing season since 1979. The pervasive truth last fall was that the team succumbed to a “woe is me” mentality, Florida’s very own Krokodil. Have attitudes changed? Muschamp says his players should never forget last season, using their failures to fuel the fire. Undoubtedly, the players will say all the right things this spring, but it’s their actions during practice that will tell a better story.
GAINESVILLE -- Confession: I was not at Florida's 2014 Pro Day on a soggy and cold Monday morning in Gainesville.
Sleep deprived after arriving home from the Southeastern Conference tournament in the wee hours Monday, I missed the annual event (traditionally) held in The Swamp.
But fear not, others were there to document a rainy day full of NFL personnel and a dozen former Florida players working out, highlighted by its three ballyhooed cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins -- and former No. 1 overall recruit DE/LB Ronald Powell.
Without further adieu, Florida's Pro Day as told on Twitter.
AN OMINOUS START...
YET SOLID ATTENDANCE...
BUT MOSTLY JOKES...
SOME PROSPECTS SHINED...
WHILE OTHERS DID NOT...
STILL, NO EXCUSES...
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. FLORIDA'S 2014 PRO DAY -- OR SOMETHING...
GAINESVILLE -- Florida -- the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament -- finished the regular season as the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history, collecting several additional awards in the process.
The Gators (32-2) have never opened the tournament as the nation's No. 1 ranked team, but they will do so Thursday (4 p.m., TBS) when they take on the winner of Tuesday's play-in game between Mount St. Mary's (16-16) and Albany (18-14).
"We got a number one seed. Now that the seeding is set, the only thing that matters is playing well and putting yourself in a position to win and advance,” coach Billy Donovan said Monday.
“We’re excited to be in the tournament. We’re excited for another opportunity to play but the number one seed, the overall seed, whatever it is, it’s great. But that’s a reflection of what’s happened from November all the way to here in March. Once the brackets are out and you’re playing, seedings and things like that, players aren’t thinking about that. They’re thinking about playing and competing and playing to the best of their ability.”
Meanwhile, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Donovan was named the SEC Coach of the Year for the second straight season, the AP announced Monday.
"I’m sure maybe when we lose, I get maybe too much blame and when we win I probably get maybe too much praise," Donovan said.
"But the thing that I’ve always looked at is whether or not I get credit, what kind of impact I have made in those guys’ lives?"
Donovan led the Gators to the greatest season in SEC history, capping a 21-0 run through league play with a dramatic tournament title over rival Kentucky.
Wilbekin, who was named the MVP of the SEC Tournament after averaging 13.3 points, 3.0 assists and 3.3 steals over three games, was a unanimous All-SEC first-team selection and was joined by Gators forward Casey Prather.
Senior center Patric Young was an All-SEC second-team honoree.
Last week, SEC coaches named Wilbekin the player of the year and Donovan the league's coach of the year.
Eight days after No. 1 Florida walloped Kentucky in Gainesville -- UF's largest winning-margin (19 points) in series history -- John Calipari's youthful Wildcats look (and feel) like a new team.
Engineered by Calipari's much-publicized "tweaks," Kentucky trounced LSU in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals before dispatching Georgia to advance to the league's title game.
"We're not the same team we were two, three weeks ago," Calipari said.
"They're just starting to come together. It took time. We're starting five freshmen, folks. Five freshmen trying to do something unique and special. This team, they're starting to come together. We're now one of those teams that you would hope we would have been two months ago, but so what. It took time. I'm good with it. ...This team just needed something to get them over the hump and they're doing it now."
The upset-minded 'Cats look to end Florida's school-record 25-game winning streak today at 3:15 on ESPN. Meanwhile, the Gators hope to become the first team since Tennessee in 1978-79 to beat UK three times in one season.
While UK's boisterous freshmen openly relish the opporunity to play the nation's top-ranked team for a third time, Calipari -- in his most Lou Holtz-ian hyperbolic state -- does not.
"I've had enough of Florida. For four years I've seen the same guys," Calipari siad. "What a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job. You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that. I understand when this game is close, they will not give you the game, and if you don't fight like heck, they're taking it from you. That's who they are and that's who they have been all year. I don't see it changing.
"Now, that means when we go against them, you're going to have to take it. They will not give it to you. As you're trying to take it, they're trying to take it from you. So they absolutely bashed us down there. We weren't even in the game. Then we make a 15-0 run and get it close, and then they bash us again. My players can all say what they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again. But you know what? We are here, I don't think they're going to let us leave, so we're going to go play this game and see what happens."
The Gators drained 12-of-21 shots from beyond the arc, shooting a better percentage (57 percent) from downtown than the charity stripe (50 percent, 10-for-20). ... Freshman forward Chris Walker, who chipped in four points off the bench, remained non-committal postgame on whether he will return for his sophomore season. ... The Gators' aggressive press forced 14 turnovers, six by Mizzou point guard Jordan Clarkson. ... Kasey Hill finished with seven points, five assists and five rebounds off the bench.
Debose missed the entire 2013 season after sustaining a season-ending ACL injury in early August. Florida's shifty receiver/kick return specialist redshirted his freshman season due to a hamstring injury.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 1 Florida was perfect during the 2014 Southeastern Conference regular season (18-0) and it resulted in nearly a sweep of the league's end-of-season awards.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was named the SEC Player of the Year, while coach Billy Donovan collected his second straight SEC Coach of the Year honor, the league announced Tuesday.
“I was happy. My parents were really happy," said Wilbekin, who is averaging 12.9 points, 3.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game for the top-ranked Gators.
"I’m just more happy for our team to see all the other people who got rewards on our team. I think it’s a reflection of how good this team is and how good we played during the regular season to see this many of us get awards. … I definitely couldn’t have done it without my teammates, Coach D believing in me and Jeremy Foley giving me a second chance."
But the awards didn't stop there.
Senior center Patric Young was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and became the league's first three-time recipient of the Scholar-Athlete of the Year award.
"I’m grateful to my teammates for playing such terrible defense so I could pick up the slack," Young quipped.
"It’s just nice to be recognized for doing the right things by all the coaches on the committee and the people that voted me to win this award.”
Added Donovan: "I think [Young] represents, in my opinion, what college athletics is all about. His education is very, very important to him; going to class is very important to him; he's very active on campus; he's very active in the community. He's got a great personality. I think he, maybe more so than anybody that's ever been in this program, has taken full advantage of everything on this campus and what it has to offer."
Meanwhile, sophomore transfer Dorian Finney-Smith was named the SEC Sixth Man of the Year in his first season with the Gators.
Finney-Smith is averaging a team-high 6.9 rebounds per game to go along with 9.4 points per contest.
Not to be forgotten, UF's leading scorer (1.46 ppg) senior swingman Casey Prather was named an All-SEC first-team performer. Wilbekin (first-team) and Young (second-team) were also All-SEC selections.
"We come together as a team and do what we need to do each and every night," Prather said. "As far as little things, hustle plays, rebounding, it’s a collective effort between us and not just like individuals.”
The Gators' five (of six) year-end awards is a school record for Florida, with Wilbekin joining Chandler Parsons (2011) as UF's only other SEC Player of the Year recepient.
"I mentioned this to our guys, and I really, really think this, any individual honor to me is just a reflection on your team," Donovan said Monday. "And whatever awards are given out or whatever honors are given out to any of our guys, I think they would be the first one to say, 'Without my teammates this would not have been possible.'"
Donovan, a two-time national champion (2006, 2007), collected his third coach of the year award in four seasons, but Florida's stoic leader pointed the honor back towards his team.
"I don't think those awards would happen if I had a bunch of bad players on my team," he said.
********** SEC AWARDS **********
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Scottie Wilbekin (Florida)
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Patric Young (Florida)
SIXTH-MAN OF THE YEAR: Dorian Finney-Smith (Florida)
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Julius Randle (Kentucky)
COACH OF THE YEAR: Billy Donovan (Florida)
SCHOLAR-ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: Patric Young (Florida)
ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM: Prather, Wilbekin (Florida); Trevor Releford (Alabama); Randle (Kentucky); Johnny O’Bryant III (LSU); Jabari Brown (Missouri); Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee).
ALL-SEC SECOND TEAM: Young (Florida); Bobby Portis (Arkansas); Chris Denson (Auburn); Charles Mann (Georgia); James Young (Kentucky); Jordan Mickey (LSU); Marshal Henderson, Jarvis Summers (Ole Miss); Jordan Clarkson (Missouri); Rod Odom (Vanderbilt).
GAINESVILLE -- Gators coach Will Muschamp met with the media Tuesday to preview Florida's spring practice, starting March 19 (open to the public).
Muschamp dished on a number of topics including a laundry list of injury updates, some notable positional changes and his preference for a traditional Orange & Blue Debut.
GAME (BACK) ON?
Last spring, Florida was forced to hold a glorified open practice during its annual Orange & Blue Debut due to so many offensive line injuries.
It turned out to be a damning omen for the upcoming season.
Muschamp hopes this spring is different (in more ways than one), and preliminary plans are to hold a traditional scrimmage on April 12.
"I want to have a spring game every year," he said.
"Last year I just didn't feel like it was fair with six offensive linemen healthy to put those guys through that. … I have all plans to have a spring game every year. I think it's important for those guys to get out in front of that crowd, the coaches off the field, and make them make calls and communicate and produce. There's no question. I want to have a spring game every year.”
Florida was railroaded by injuries during its 2013 campaign and the team isn't totally healthy heading into spring camp.
Muschamp did deliver some positive news on tailback Matt Jones, who continues to recover well from a torn meniscus.
Jones -- who had multiple knee surgeries to repair the ligament in his left knee -- will miss all of spring practice, but Muschamp said the junior running back will be fully cleared on May 1.
"He will not go through spring. He will not go through non-contact," Muschamp explained. "Matt will rehab there in the pit during practice, but extremely pleased with his progress and where he is."
May 1 is a D-Day of sorts for multiple UF players, as linebackers Matt Rolin (ACL) and Alex Anzalone (shoulder surgery) and senior defensive tackle Leon Orr (fractured wrist) will be cleared after missing camp.
Special teams ace/linebacker Jeremi Powell is expected to be cleared a month later (June 1), after sustaining a torn ACL during the 2013 season.
Senior wideout Andre Debose, who missed the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL suffered in August, will be cleared March 28 but will not have any contact this spring.
The 23-year-old former five-star prospect is expected to receive his sixth-year medical hardship wavier from the NCAA sometime in the near future.
True freshman tailback Brandon Powell, an early enrollee, is expected to be cleared for non-contact work "in the latter part" of spring practice after having offseason surgery to repair a pre-existing foot fracture from high school.
"We decided in February to go ahead and have surgery and put a pin in that," Muschamp said.
"To that point in January, had done an outstanding job in our conditioning drills. Great change of direction and speed. We're really excited about. He's one of the guys we're really excited about. It's unfortunate that something like that happened from high school."
Meanwhile, the news was not so good for redshirt sophomore tight end Colin Thompson (foot) and freshman offensive guard Nolan Kelleher (back).
Thompson, plagued by foot injuries during his three years in Gainesville, will miss spring practice and his future playing career appears uncertain.
"The last opinion we got is that he needed to shut it down completely," Muschamp said. "We'll have another opinion when spring is over, but he will not partake in spring practice."
Kelleher, an early enrollee, is dealing with a lingering back injury from high school and has not been cleared for camp.
Muschamp didn't release UF's spring depth chart -- citing the team's need to finish its offseason conditioning program first -- but he did tease multiple impact changes including Max Garcia's (trial) shift to center.
Garcia, a senior offensive lineman, started 12 games at left guard in 2013 and was one of Florida's more reliable linemen on an underachieving unit.
Tyler Moore, UF's presumptive center heading into camp, will move permanently to guard after struggling mightily as the Gators' right tackle last season.
Cameron Dillard (redshirt freshman) and Trip Thurman will also split time at center, while Trenton Brown will work at both tackle and guard.
D.J. Humphries remains Florida's left tackle, but the junior notably eclipsed the 290-pound mark -- consistently -- for the first time in his career.
Defensively, sophomore end Joey Ivie will see work at both end and defensive tackle, similarly to Jon Bullard in 2013.
The Gators' secondary, full of talent and inexperience, will see lots of moving parts this spring as roles are locked down.
“This isn’t Canadian ball, I mean, what’s legal?”
-- Muschamp, totally out of context, on college football’s failed 10-second rule.
Florida, winners of a school-record 23 straight games, finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, a first in school history.
After becoming the first team ever in the Southeastern Conference to go 18-0 in league play, Billy Donovan gave his players a well-deserved two days off (Sunday, Monday) before the team resumes practice Tuesday and travels to Atlanta for the SEC tournament Thursday.
The Gators (29-2) will open play Friday at 1 p.m. against the winner of Missouri (21-10) and Texas A&M (17-14).
Florida partied hard following its throttling of No. 25 Kentucky on Saturday, celebrating Senior Day and UF's historic victory with a postgame net-cutting ceremony.
Donovan, who said the Gators will focus on themselves this week and not a what-if opponent, is hopeful his players can put their triumphs in the past.
"The biggest area for us is to get emotionally, mentally and psychologically past what happened on Saturday," he explained. "We’ve got to get past that. That starts this afternoon, getting past that and moving on and focusing on the next thing in front of us.”
BILLY SAY WHAT?
Unlike John Calipari or Roy Williams, Florida's coach has normally remained diplomatic when discussing conference tournaments.
While Donovan acknowledged he "likes playing the conference tournament" and "thinks it gets you ready for postseason play," he quickly addressed his major issue with the event's annual setup.
"The one thing the NCAA has to look at is any conference that's playing their conference tournament and it goes into Sunday, those teams, in my opinion, should not play in the NCAA tournament until Friday," Donovan said bluntly.
"You have to go up there and you have to have a mandatory opening practice on a Wednesday if you're playing Thursday, that's not right for those kind of teams, where you've got a team that all of sudden does a heck of a job, they get all the way to Sunday, they win a championship, maybe they miss Selection Sunday, they've got to travel back, they get back on campus on Sunday, they've got to try to recuperate after playing three straight games and they're on a plane Tuesday night going into a place, Wednesday practice, Thursday playing … that's a lot in my opinion. … And I think our league should look at it, too. Are we better off backing up our conference tournament and ending it on Saturday? Just end it on Saturday and give everybody Sunday off and figure out who's in the tournament and who's not and move from there."
Florida, a lock for a No. 1 seed, could face Donovan's exact scenario should the Gators reach Sunday's SEC Championship (3:15 p.m.).
UF is nearly assured of opening the NCAA Tournament in Orlando, with the games slated for Thursday and Saturday. According to stat guru Ken Pomeroy, Florida is nearly a coin-flip (49.2 percent) to win the tournament.
FRAZIER II HONORED
Florida's 6-foot-4 sophomore guard drained a conference-record 11 3-pointers against South Carolina last Tuesday, finishing with 37 points. Frazier II, averaging 12.9 points per game this season, added nine points on three treys in Florida's beatdown of Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
Casey Prather is Florida's leading scorer, averaging 14.6 points per game and shooting 62.5 percent from the field.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 1 Florida is chasing perfection -- and history -- Saturday at noon against No. 25 Kentucky, but a pregame ceremony honoring its decorated senior class will serve as an appropriate appetizer on an emotionally charged afternoon.
The Gators, winners of a school-record 23 straight, will pay homage to a special (and rare) group of four seniors -- Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young -- who have played over 500 games together and share the discernible scars from three consecutive Elite Eight exits.
It’s a weathered, warted but invested quartet, discovering enviable (and possibly record) successes despite navigating through cobblestone-esque roads.
Each player’s story is different, and while chemistry and experience are cliché characterizations of UF’s four seniors, overcoming adversity is what seems to truly define them.
Four years ago, a hotshot prospect (Young), a kid (Wilbekin), a project (Yeguete) and a wide-eyed winger (Prather) came together. On Saturday, they stand as the greatest senior class in UF’s history.
It wasn’t always pretty, and was rarely easy, but Florida’s quartet -- forged by toughness, patience and poise -- is exactly how the whole can be better than the sum of its parts.
The seniors, none stud nor slouch, have combined for three Southeastern Conference titles, nine NCAA Tournament wins and stand just a single victory away from becoming the first team in league history to go 18-0 in conference play.
Florida’s special class is the perfect storm of madness meets good fortune. Young is a former McDonald’s All-American who gradually found consistency, but never developed fast enough to see his lottery projection fulfilled. Wilbekin is a former local high school product thrust into adulthood too soon, yet newfound maturity (via multiple suspensions) saw him transform into UF’s best and most indispensable player.
Prather is a dynamic slasher who wanted to be a prolific shooter, but wasn’t. After flirting with transferring, he decided to stay in Gainesville and blossomed into the team’s top scorer.
Finally, Yeguete is and has always been the heart and soul of the group. The glue-guy who’s body has been undone by multiple injuries, the fauxhawked forward remains a key-cog in UF’s championship run as its energy, heartbeat and intangible force.
Together, the four seniors have accomplished great things, and while they’re hardly ready to commemorate their careers, each player was able to reflect on their journey and what tomorrow’s final home game means.
Below is a compilation of quotes, including a nugget from coach Billy Donovan.
On how the group deserves to be remembered:
"I think first and foremost great kids, great people, people of substance, of character. None of them are perfect. They've all made mistakes. They've all been through their ups and downs, but I think at the heart of who they are, they're really great kids. The other think the other thing that I would say is that this institution means an enormous amount to them personally. Them putting on a Florida uniform, them playing here, has meant a lot to them and something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. And then I think the other part of it is their teammates have been equally important to them as the institution has been. I think they're kids that worked really, really hard and tried each and every day to do the best that they can."
On how the seniors will be remembered:
“I think we all have our own personal story. I think we all went through a couple things in our four years here. Me and my injury. Casey wasn't playing a lot first few years and now he's having a great year. Pat kind of being up and down a little bit. Scottie being in trouble. I think guys are just staying in the moment, just staying with the process. We fought through a lot of adversity we had and just staying connected. That's pretty much how we'll be remembered.”
On the group’s special bond:
"We knew how close we are and how much we could accomplish as a group. We had a lot of fun here, especially with this group this year, and we're just excited for what's next and we know there's more out there for us."
On tomorrow’s atmosphere:
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it quite a bit. It definitely brings back some memories of just how long I’ve been here. But I just want to end it the right way, just playing hard and giving it my all for this last home game."
On not relishing the moment until it’s over:
“That’s how I want it to be. Obviously I want to make the most out of it, but I can’t let whatever moment it is, and the rest of the guys can’t let whatever moment it is be bigger than the big game we have to play. That’s what we’ve been trying to focus on.”
On the class’ accomplishments:
"Hopefully, the greatest thing hasn't come yet. But as of now, this class has gone through a lot, from guys thinking about transferring to staying in school, to not playing games with injuries, all those things, this team, this senior class, has persevered, stuck together and won."
On his attitude this season:
“I knew this was my last chance to do something great here. I just really wanted to give it my best shot by putting in the work during the offseason. I’ve been focused on doing whatever I can to be more connected to my teammates, being a better teammate and trying to improve myself mentally for the ups and downs that come during the season and focus in on working harder each day.”
On the quartet’s relationship:
“We’re so close. Even from the first day we met we just clicked. I don’t know what it was about it, but we clicked instantly. Since then we’ve just improved our relationship on and off the court.”
On his bond with Donovan:
“It’s grown quite a bit because he knows some of the obstacles I came through from earlier experiences in high school. He’s been a great guy and great mentor who has prepared me for the games and for the future.”
GAINESVILLE -- Florida's disastrous 2013 campaign served as open season on the (lack of) coaching competency exemplified by Will Muschamp, but UF's 2014 has been dominated by change including newfound transparency.
In a (savvy) move to reconnect with a disgruntled fan base, the Gators will open eight spring practices -- nine counting their annual Orange & Blue Debut -- the school announced Tuesday.
Florida's inaugural practice on March 19 will be open to the public, as fans will have a chance to see new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and his up-tempo scheme, injured quarterback Jeff Driskel back in action, nine early enrollees and Vernon Hargreaves III intercepting all the passes more.
UF's new open practice schedule represents a dramatic shift from Muschamp's bunker mentality, as the Gators have held just four total open practices (not counting the spring game) the previous two spring camps.
The Gators also announced an additional practice open exclusively to season ticket-holders at an unknown date.
GAINESVILLE -- Gators head coach Will Muschamp will speak at the Broward County Gator Club on May 1, the school announced Tuesday.
Muschamp's spring speaking tour -- a collaborative effort by the UF Alumni Association, Gators Boosters and the University Athletic Association -- includes eight stops across the state starting with an April 8 appearance -- four days prior to UF's annual Orange & Blue Debut -- at the Gainesville Quarterback Club.
According to Adam Silverstein of OnlyGators.com, Muschamp's stop in Broward County will be the coach's first speaking engagement since 2011 at a Gator Club south of Palm Beach County.
Although dates and times are to be determined, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper (Ocala), offensive line coach Mike Summers (Tallahassee, Pensacola) and special teams coordinator Coleman Hutlzer (Daytona Beach) will also speak on the tour.
Muschamp's complete tour schedule...
April 8 - Gainesville Quarterback Club (Gainesville)
April 17 - Gator Club of Jacksonville (Jacksonville)
May 1 - Broward County Gator Club (Fort Lauderdale)
May 5 - Tampa/Pinellas County Gator Clubs (Tampa)
May 7 - Polk County Gator Club (Lakeland)
May 13 - Central Florida Gator Club (Orlando)
May 20 - Titletown Gator Club (Gainesville)
May 22 - Fightin' Gator Touchdown Club (Gainesville)
According to Gatorzone.com, visit www.ufalumni.ufl.edu for more information including tickets, future appearances and more.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 1 Florida clinched the Southeastern Conference league title before February ended -- its third outright championship in four years -- but these Gators' goals are far from complete.
They're striving for greatness.
Florida is in the midst of a 20-game winning streak and UF coach Billy Donovan's thematic message has been received, absorbed and echoed like a pirate's parrot.
Not even Jay-Z and LeBron talk about greatness as much as Florida's players.
"We’re trying to chase greatness," sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II said. "We’re not settling for this. We still have a game tomorrow, and that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s great to have [SEC league title] honor. But we still have a lot of things to accomplish. We still have a lot of goals."
Added forward Dorian Finney-Smith: "Every play, moment by moment, every possession you've got to strive for greatness. Take care of the ball, just do everything right. … We're just trying to strive for greatness. We're thinking about bigger things."
Earlier in the week, Donovan downplayed his team's No. 1 ranking and on Friday he acknowledged -- despite the league title -- UF's quest for a national championship is just getting started.
"I’m really, really proud of them, but I still think there’s more out there in front of us that we have a chance and opportunity to go out and try to chase," Donovan said.
“The league is not over. We still have three games remaining. We’re playing against a very, very talented, very good team in LSU tomorrow afternoon. I think our guys certainly set out to compete for an SEC championship in early January but at the same point, the season’s not over. We’ve got three games left to be played. Our guys have done a good job up to this point in time of staying focused and going through the process of getting prepared for each game and I don’t think this game is any different for us in terms of you want to continue playing well. … In a week or maybe a little bit longer the SEC Tournament will start, the post season will start, so this is something where we’re playing against some good teams and we have an opportunity to keep moving in that direction. I still think there is a lot out there in front of our team.”
The Gators host the Tigers on Saturday at 4 p.m. on CBS.
GAINESVILLE -- There's plenty of nourishment for everyone.
THANK YOU SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?
The nation's top ranked men's basketball team clinched the Southeastern Conference regular season title without even taking the court Thursday evening.
No. 1 Florida earned a share of the SEC title following its win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, but with No. 17 Kentucky falling at home to Arkansas the Gators won their third outright league championship (2011, 2013, 2014) in the past four seasons.
By virtue of winning the league title, Billy Donovan's team will be a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament, have a double-bye and open the quarterfinal round Friday afternoon (March 14; 1 p.m.) in Atlanta (Georgia Dome).
The Gators host the LSU Tigers this Saturday (4 p.m., CBS) with a chance to extend its 20-game winning streak and cut down the nets in front of their home crowd.
According to Florida's resident in-house wordsmith…
We should have more on Hill's status later this afternoon after meeting with Donovan.
BRACKETOLOGY No. 391,736.0
Couple updated mock brackets… The Gators are No. 1 seed in the South Region (Orlando) in Jerry Palm's latest field of 68. Florida also remains the top seed in the South Region in Joe Lunardi's updated bracket.
FREEBIE FLAWS PERSIST
Florida had a nice four-game stretch at the charity stripe before a dreadful performance at the line nearly cost the Gators in Nashville.
UF's 12 attempts against Vandy were a season-low, while shooting 58 percent (7-of-12) from the stripe was its second-worst effort at the line this season.
The Gators, thanks in large part to senior center Patric Young's dramatic improvement at the free throw line, had coupled four-straight games -- including three close road tilts -- over 77 percent.
(at) Tennessee - 77.3 % (17-of-22)
(at) Kentucky 78.8 % (22-of-28)
Auburn 82.1 % (23-of-28)
(at) Ole Miss 78.9 % (15-of-19)
Young, a career 57 percent free throw shooter, is 26 for his last 34 (76 percent) at the charity stripe.
FOOTBALL SCHEDULE UPDATES
Florida and Florida State officially renewed their annual series through 2018, UF announced Thursday.
The two state rivals have played annually since 1958 and their current contract was set to expire after the 2014 season. The Gators will host the Seminoles in 2015 and 2017, while they will travel to Tallahassee in 2016 and 2018.
Meanwhile, Florida also announced an addition to its 2015 schedule, adding a September 12 home game against East Carolina. This made a former Gator Clause blogger quite happy.
* The Curious Case of DFS - Late last week I called Finney-Smith UF's X-factor and following a dismal month he responded with a terrific (and game-saving) effort against the Commodores. DFS (19 points) outscored Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II combined (18 points).
GAINESVILLE -- While former Gators cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy garnered attention in draft gurus Todd McShay and Mel Kiper's initial first round mocks, it was Florida's most consistent -- and versatile -- defensive back last season who impressed during the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Jaylen Watkins, an unheralded three-year starter with experience at safety, cornerback and nickel, ran a blistering 4.41 seconds official 40-yard dash, the fourth-fastest time among players at his position. Watkins also bench pressed 225 pounds 22 times, tied for tops among his positional peers.
Watkins' 52 tackles in 2013 were third-most on Florida and Tuesday's solid workout further highlighted his talent in the eyes of NFL scouts. Following his impressive workout, he tweeted...
Meanwhile, Roberson and Purifoy both saw their stocks dip following poor performances in Indianapolis.
Purifoy, touted as an exceptional athlete and workout wonder, ran a stunningly-average 4.61 seconds 40-yard dash and managed just six reps on the bench press, fewest among all defensive backs. Roberson, who measured well (6'0", 191 lbs), also ran poorly (4.61) but did display solid leaping ability (37.5 inch vertical jump) and a nice 20-yard shuttle (4.08 seconds).
Both prospects will have a chance to redeem themselves at Florida's Pro Day on March 17, but with injury concerns (Roberson), off-the-field question marks (Purifoy), inconsistent tape (both prospects) and popular performances by other top defensive backs (see: Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett, Bradley Roby), they could slip into the draft's middle rounds.
In all, eight former Florida players participated in the combine, including linebacker/defensive end Ronald Powell and tight end/h-back Trey Burton. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley attended the combine for measurements and interviews but did not workout as he continues to recover from a torn ACL.
Burton ran well, posting a 4.62 seconds 40-yard dash (fourth fastest at TE) and a 7.14 seconds 3-cone drill (second fastest), but complete athleticism and positional concerns continue to be a uphill climb for UF's former Swiss Army Knife.
Payton is the third 2015 prospect -- and second wide receiver -- to verbally commit to Florida in the past four days, who held its annual Junior Day over the weekend.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound First Coast wideout is largely an unknown, holding a recent offer from UF despite not carrying a single star ranking at multiple recruiting services (Rivals, ESPN).
Payton is Florida's fourth commit -- and third Jacksonville prospect -- in its 2015 class, joining Trinity Christian defensive back Deontai Williams, Bishop Kenny offensive tackle Tyler Jordan as well as Lake Nona receiver Deondre Farrier.
For the first time since 2007, Florida, winners of 19 straight games, was voted No. 1 in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll.
The Gators (25-2, 14-0 Southeastern Conference) earned 47 of 65 first-place votes, sliding into the top spot thanks to a pair of losses by Syracuse.
Unbeaten Wichita State (29-0) received 14 first-place votes and Arizona (25-2) earned the remaining four votes, prompting UF coach Billy Donovan to say, "On any given night there are a number of teams that could look like the No. 1 team in the country."
Florida hasn't reigned as the nation's top-ranked team during the regular season since February 2007, when a weekend shellacking (83-70) at Vanderbilt ended the eventual national champs' 17-game winning streak and No. 1 status.
Coincidentally, Florida travels to Vanderbilt on Tuesday with a chance to clinch a share of the 2013-14 SEC title.
GAINESVILLE -- Florida, hosting its annual Junior Day extravaganza, picked up a pair of verbal commitments for its 2015 class over the weekend.
Three-star wide receiver Deondre Farrier (Lake Nona) and three-star offensive lineman Tyler Jordan (Bishop Kenny) both pledged their commitments to the Gators, according to multiple recruiting reports.
Later, Jordan officially announced his decision on Twitter.
Jordan, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound tackle, held offers from Georgia, Stanford, Ohio State and others, while Farrier, a 6-foot-1, 173-pound speedster, chose the Gators over South Florida, Kentucky, Miami and others.
The two prospects became UF's second and third commitments in its 2015 class.
FACT: No. 2 Florida would not have beaten then-No. 13 Kansas, No. 15 Memphis or a juiced Arkansas team without the contributions of Dorian Finney-Smith.
FICTION: Finney-Smith is the college reincarnate of Detroit's Josh Smith.
He's more maddening.
DFS has absolutely murdered UF's (otherwise) efficient field goal percentage during conference play.
His mind-numbing shooting slump extends from the 3-point line to the rim, as the redshirt sophomore is shooting a disastrous 35 percent (37-for-105) from the field in 13 conference games.
DFS is also an are-you-kidding-me 11-for-47 from downtown in SEC play. The underclassman has obviously never heard of the red light district.
FACT: Finney-Smith was touted as a versatile, playmaking point-forward with freakish rebounding skills and a player some said to be the most dominant Gator in practices over the summer.
FICTION: DSF has a nasty shot-fake.
What's it worth if you can't finish?
FACT OR FICTION: Florida can win the national title without improved play from its enigmatic forward?
Finney-Smith, UF's 6-foot-8 super sub, is a tantalizing talent.
He may well win the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year Award this season, but too often -- especially over the last month-plus -- DFS has teased solid performances with way too many eye-gouging nights.
Ostensibly, Finney-Smith helps Florida space the floor and is an assertive offensive playmaker, but the redshirt sophomore hasn't made a trey in February (0-for-18) and is 0-for-21 since his last made 3-pointer.
Finney-Smith has also showcased as an inconsistent facilitator and finisher -- two of his most ballyhooed attributes at the start of 2013-14 -- currently touting the same number assists (46) as turnovers (46) this season.
Following consecutive solid performances against Arkansas and Georgia (22 and 14 points, respectively), Finney-Smith has tallied just a single game in double-digits (11 points, Texas A&M) over UF's last 10 victories.
Yet despite all the ups-and-downs: Finney-Smith stands as Florida's biggest X-factor heading into March Madness.
WIth Chris Walker predictably still in the diaper stage of his career and Will Yeguete practically useless on the offensive end, the Gators need DFS to emerge -- on a nightly basis -- as the frontcourt force that dominated minutes in the wins over Kansas, Memphis and even Tennessee (at home).
Earlier this season, Billy Donovan routinely ran iso-plays for Finney-Smith, now he's routinely yanking the forward for shody shot selection.
On the surface, a stat line of 9.1 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game and 1.9 assists per game is superb for a role player, but DFS is more than that. He is a glorified starter (see: minutes played, closing out games) and an integral player in UF's motion offense and 1-3-1 defense.
I don't know if the Gators can win a title if Finney-Smith can't rediscover his offensive potential, and it's a question worth pondering with just five games until the madness begins.
GAINESVILLE -- For nearly 40 minutes, a heavyweight bout between David and Goliath broke out in the O'Connell Center.
Fortunately for No. 2 Florida, Auburn -- 17-point underdogs entering Wednesday's showdown -- eventually ran out of stones.
The Gators (24-2, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) won their 18th straight, as senior center Patric Young delivered a monster second half to stave off AU's upset bid en route to a 71-66 victory.
Young sank a pair of clutch free throws with 19.4 seconds remaining, as Auburn Auburn'd down the stretch while the Gators rallied late facing (mounting) pressure.
Young was (un)intentionally fouled by center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum after AU guard Chris Denson missed the possible go-ahead free throw.
"I just told myself, 'Be great. Strive to be great right now,'" Young said.
The Tigers (12-12, 4-9 SEC) threw away the ensuing impounds pass, capping a sudden imposition following a fearless effort most of the night.
"We beat ourselves in those waning moments," AU coach Tony Barbee said. "But they didn't beat themselves, so give them credit."
Young, dealing with chronic knee pain, wasn't even expected to play Wednesday and his first half effort looked like he'd made the wrong choice to suit up.
But the senior responded with a Herculean effort after halftime, scoring all 17 of his points in the second half, adding seven rebounds and three assists.
"I thought Pat was just phenomenal," UF coach Billy Donovan said.
But for most of the game, the Gators were anything but.
Florida trailed by eight at halftime (38-30), its largest home deficit this season. Following two tough road battles last week, the Gators -- visibly mentally and physically fatigued -- played like they were running on fumes.
"I thought Auburn outplayed us," Donovan said. "No question we're going to get everyone's best shot, but 'Are we going to give them our best shot?' I didn't think we did that today."
Florida struggled defensively, especially guarding the three-point line, as the Tigers drained 10 treys -- six in the first half.
Freshman guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen tied a career-high, scoring 17 points with five 3-pointers.
"We didn't play very well in the first half, but we never gave up," senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
The Gators opened the second half on an 11-3 run but the game settled into a rowdy see-saw affair until Wilbekin (15 points, four assists), Prather (16 points, nine rebounds) and Young made the necessary plays late.
Florida finished the win on an 8-1 run, holding the Tigers scoreless from the field over the final three minutes of the game.
"We only got motivated because the game was in doubt," Donovan said. "I am very glad we won and I thought our guys showed resiliency."
THIS & THAT
Sophomore sniper-shooter Michael Frazier drilled a go-ahead triple with 41 seconds left in the game, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Frazier briefly exited the win with an apparent left hand injury, but Donovan said the sophomore is "fine." … The Gators shot 82 percent from the charity stripe (23-of-28), their best mark in conference play this season. … UF extended its school-record home winning streak to 30 games. … Dorian Finney-Smith was 0-for-4 from downtown. The redshirt sophomore has missed his last 21 attempts since Jan. 30.
Florida climbed to No. 2 in both national polls Monday, receiving a single first place vote in the Associated Press Top 25. The Gators appear destined for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and are (almost) assured of playing in Orlando for the second/third rounds.
Meanwhile, point guard Kasey Hill is doubtful for tomorrow's game against Auburn after injurying his groin in the win over Kentucky.
Head coach Billy Donovan said Monday, "I would not anticipate him playing Wednesday."
NEW FOOTBALL HIRE?
Jeremy Darveau, formerly the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Division II Southwest Minnesota State, tweeted Tuesday he has joined Florida's football staff.
FootballScoop.com first reported Darveau's move, but UF has yet to confirm the news.
Will Muschamp's staff is full (all 10 spots filled), so Darveau's position is unknown. The former Louisville offensive tackle could be assigned quality control responsibilities or come on as a graduate assistant.
Darveau played two seasons with the Cardinals under UF's new offensive line coach Mike Summers.
Miami Belen Jesuit placekicker Jorge Powell will walk-on at Florida, according to the Miami Herald's own Safid Deen.
Powell was originally slated to attend Penn State, but will instead compete against Austin Hardin, UF's lone scholarship kicker who suffered through a dreadful redshirt freshman campaign, walk-on Frankie Velez (6-of-8 field goals) and former Virginia Tech kickoff specialist Brooks Abbott.
According to The Gainesville Sun, Powell's father attended Florida and the placekicker wanted to play closer to home.
JACKSON'S CAREER OVER?
On Feb. 4, The Moultrie Observer published a piece on Florida redshirt freshman Octavius Jackson and the offensive lineman's persistent, but failing battle with multiple shoulder injuries.
Muschamp touted Jackson as one of UF's most promising linemen throughout the fall, but it appears the Colquitt County High standout will never play for the Gators following career-ending surgery.
Jackson also addressed the situation on Instagram.
ESPN.com announced last week Florida agreed to participate in a unique "barnstorming event" in December 2018.
The Gators, along with Michigan State, North Carolina and Texas, will play three games in eight days, one each in New York City (Madison Square Garden), Chicago (United Center) and Los Angeles (Staples Center).
According to ESPN.com, the teams will all travel together on a single charted airplane. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, an innovator in creative college basketball events including the first aircraft carrier game, is the brainchild for the non-conference showcase tour.
STAT OF THE DAY
Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin tallied 44 points (21 at Tennessee, 23 at UK), eight assists and zero turnovers in Florida two major road wins last week. Monday, UF's senior leader was named the SEC Player of the Week and one of 23 finalists for the Cousy Award, given to the nation's top college point guard.
GAINESVILLE -- From the wonderful wisdom of Ice-T: "Pimpin' ain't easy, but some somebody gotta do it."
No. 3 Florida won in Lexington for the first time since 2007, downing the talented Wildcats 69-59 for a significant victory.
The Gators extended their winning streak to 17 games and for all intents and purposes (likely) locked up the Southeastern Conference regular season title.
Comparisons (however faulty and careless) to the Oh-Fours are already trickling out, but the one definitive trait the two groups have/had in common: An obsession -- and joy -- in winning.
Florida's victory at Tennessee on Tuesday night was nice and full of fortunate happenstances, but Patric Young's Herculean-save exemplified this team's horror of losing.
Casey Prather's Superman snatch Saturday night was no different.
Saturday's victory in Rupp Arena was an efficient, fastidious evisceration over perhaps "the most talented team in the country."
Although "youth versus experience" became the anti-narrative leading up to the marquee matchup, the game played out as initially presumed.
UF freshman roadrunner Kasey Hill logged the fewest minutes of his collegiate career, as Donovan basically rotated six guys -- the four seniors plus sophomores Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith -- the majority of the game.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was fantastic, finishing with a career-high 23 points, zero turnovers and all the poise. The (potential) frontrunner for SEC POY was also 11-of-12 from the charity stripe in the face of a hostile crowd -- only missing his final attempt.
How did the Gators win in Rupp Arena shooting just 44 percent from the field -- including 3-for-13 from downtown -- and getting gashed (comparatively speaking) defensively in the first half?
Execution. Experience. Effort.
* Florida scored an insane 2.21 points per possession over the final 10+ minutes of the game. UF's efficient offense -- led by Wilbekin's weaving penetration -- ultimately won the game for the Gators.
* The Gators shot a season-high (in conference play) 78.6 percent from the free throw line (22-of-28), drilling 15 of their last 17 attempts.
* Florida outscored UK 22-11 following John Calipari's (rather mysterious) technical foul.
* The Gators had just five turnovers -- two from a pair of role players who combined for less than 20 minutes of action.
* For the all the talk of UK's dominance on the offensive glass, the Gators actually out-rebounded the Wildcats 10-9 -- the dagger Prather's board with 1:25 remaining in a five-point game.
Florida's 17th straight win Saturday night didn't change the team's ceiling or alter any attitudes for those intimately aware of UF's consistent crunch-time coolness thisseason.
Instead, "Wrangled at Rupp" simply confirmed what many already knew: Florida is a damn fine team -- and seemingly getting better -- with a legitimate shot at bringing Billy Donovan his third national title.
The Gators -- dangerous and hungry -- have played like a championship-caliber team for nearly two months, and although their primetime win at No. 14 Kentucky suddenly vaulted them into the title discourse for the national press, they should've been the talk of college hoops already.
GAINESVILLE -- In advance of Saturday’s marquee matchup, No. 3 Florida coach Billy Donovan called No. 14 Kentucky “top to bottom the most talented team in the country.”
The Gators -- the lone undefeated team in Southeastern Conference play -- take on the Wildcats in Rupp Arena tomorrow night in primetime (9 p.m., ESPN College GameDay).
Kentucky starts five of the top nine freshmen in ESPN’s 2013 prospect rankings, led by double-double machine Julius Randle (15.8 ppg, 9.9 rebs) and the Harrison twins (Aaron, Andrew).
Florida’s coach downplayed the youth versus experience (UF starts four seniors) angle though, saying, “Those guys have played a lot of basketball against a lot of good players. Right now, everybody’s got about 24-25 games under their belt. Those guys certainly, all their guys have logged an enormous amount of minutes. They’ve grown, too. I don’t look at it like that. Maybe it’s different at the first game of the year. Right now at this point in time, you’ve got a very experienced team in terms of roles, responsibilities and what they’re going through.”
The Gators have dropped eight of 10 against John Calipari’s McDonald’s All-American factory Wildcats and haven’t won in (rowdy) Rupp Arena since 2007.
UF senior center Patric Young admitted, “We let one slip out of our hands last year (61-57). It would be really special to finally get one and not go my whole career not winning there.”
While expounding on Kentucky's talent, Donovan also acknowledged he is wary of UK’s size and rebounding prowess, calling it the “ultimate test” and “extremely important in the outcome in the game.”
“It’s an impressive stat. They get it back a little bit more than 41% of their missed shots,” Donovan said. “They do a great job on the glass. … Kentucky’s depth in terms of two guys on the bench with the same level of length and size and physical strength, it makes them a good rebounding team.”
Florida, in the midst of a 16-game winning streak and just one victory shy of matching a school record, hopes its staunch defense (No. 1 scoring defense) can contain Kentucky’s explosive offense (No. 2 in scoring). A win (very likely) wraps up the SEC regular-season title for the Gators and keeps them in line for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.